The Etymotic hf2’s are voiced with an eye toward sonic neutrality, a design choice that I find pleasing but that might not suit all tastes. One reason I say this is that headphones in general cannot produce the deep, tactile, rattle-your-chest cavity bass that you might hear from great loudspeakers and would certainly hear from live music. To compensate for this, many headphone makers dial in some degree of bass enhancement (some more than others), whereas Etymotic tends to apply little if any bass boost, and to use bass enhancement, if any, in a very conservative way. As a result, many competitors focus on giving you more bass, while Etymotic typically gives you somewhat less bass, but bass that sounds almost perfectly neutrally balanced and that is unfailingly taut and well focused.
Interestingly, if you listen to the hf2 in back-to-back comparisons with Eytmotic’s own ER-4P, you may find—as I did—that the hf2 seems a little less bright and a touch warmer sounding than its more costly and analytical-sounding sibling. Much though I admire the ER-4P, I think many listeners might find the hf2’s sound more natural and accessible overall. What goes on here is that, with the ER-4P, there is a region in the upper midrange where the headphone is just a bit forward sounding (though not to a degree that is distracting or that would draw your attention when listening to the ER-4P in isolation). But when you hear the hf2 alongside the ER-4, the latter’s subtle upper midrange prominence becomes apparent—a comparison that works in the hf2’s favor.
However, when you focus in on the headphones’ ability to render small, subtle, low-level details and sonic information, the advantage shifts back to the ER-4P. While the hf2 can and does capture a great deal of musical information (meaning it is competitive with if not superior to other models in its price range), the fact is that the ER-4P captures even more (which is one of the reasons the ER-4P is considered a classic design). But that said, I think that the hf2 will prove a delightful revelation for many listeners, giving them the sense that they are at last being given a deep, insider’s view of what’s really contained in their favorite music files.
One worthwhile point to note is that certain of Etymotic’s various eartip designs may give you much better sonic results than others. I say this because I have found, as have many of my colleagues who use Etymotic headphones, that I achieved the best overall sound when using Etymotic’s signature triple-flange rubber eartips (two sizes of which are provided with the hf2). I’m not sure why, but this material and eartip design seems to yield maximum sonic clarity and impact—especially on crisply delineated transient sounds and on vigorous bass content. In contrast, Etymotic’s foam eartips, which some listeners might prefer for their more comfortable fit, tend to produce a sound that is a smidgeon softer and more diffuse, making it harder to hear low-level details clearly.
I asked Etymotic’s David Friesema about these findings and he sent me this reply:
“Measured at the same reference point, the acoustic differences between the hf2 foam eartip and the 3-flange eartip are minimal. More likely, any observed sonic difference between these two tips is due to a difference in eartip placement in the user's ear canal. While not always the case, many people can't get as deep of a seal with the foam eartip.”
Noise isolation: Like the ER-4P, the hf2 can be amazingly effective at blocking out external noise—enough so that you can get way with things like listening to music while other family members watch a TV show in the same room with you. To achieve this level of noise isolation it is, of course, imperative to find a set of hf2 eartips that seal well in your ear canals. Etymotic says the hf2 provide a whopping “35-42 dB (depending on eartip used)” of noise isolation—specifications superior (in some cases dramatically superior) to those quoted for even the best of today’s active noise-cancelling headphones.
To appreciate the delicacy and finesse the hf2 has to offer, try listening to the first movement of the Hilary Hahn/St. Paul Chamber Orchestra performance of the Meyer Violin Concerto [Barber & Meyer: Violin Concertos, Sony], paying close attention Ms. Hahn’s string tone. What has long enchanted me about this young virtuoso’s playing is the fact that she achieves a sound that is incredibly articulate and, when appropriate, emphatic and incisive, yet that is never edgy or inappropriately aggressive or hard-edged. Instead, even in the most volatile passages, her tone preserves an underlying element of elegance—even of sweetness. This a distinctive quality I’ve admired when listening to Hahn in concert and a quality I’ve used as a litmus test when evaluating costly loudspeakers. But the great news, here, is that it’s also a quality that the Etymotic hf2 effortlessly reveals for listeners to enjoy. Part of why you would invest in a headset/earphone of this caliber is to savor subtleties that show the differences between great performers and merely excellent ones.